Wordle: Why five-letter words are trending

New online game doesn’t just increase your word power and sense of intellectual self; it also teaches you patience and mindfulness in a crash-and-burn world of fast moves, OTT binges and rapid PCR tests. Who knows, maybe five letters can make you a better person.


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 27 Jan 2022, 9:00 PM

A friend told me, over a south Indian breakfast last weekend, next to a sun-dappled water body in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers, that her mother had pinged in their family WhatsApp group claiming she was at a loss… 
for the Wordle word of the day. She laid awake at night, Wordle-garbled, tossing and turning, pondering over the elusive word, before making her inability to sleep a public matter to a private audience. At 3am.

“Wordle?” I asked, dunking a ghee-smeared mini idli into a bowl of sambhar and then popping it into my mouth. “What’s that?”

“Wordle, the new word game? That’s taken the world by storm?” she countered gamely.

Then I remembered. My colleague Prasun Sonwalkar had done a piece last week for Khaleej Times, in which he mentioned Wordle in passing. And that many around the world are now hooked to this word-making game.

“Like Scrabble, right?”

“Well, kind of, but you can uncover only one five-lettered word a day, and you only get six chances: basically, you keep guessing five-letter words, and, along the way, you get cues to figure if you are on the right track, the board keeps changing colours… and you don’t have to download an app — you can play online…”

My slowed-down metabolism couldn’t make any sense of that. It sounded like ‘word salad’, that Alan Shore (William Shatner) popularised in 
Boston Legal.

We changed our topic of discussion soon after, but not before she added, “It makes you think, 
unlike that other game you love playing…”

“Candy Crush,” I offered. “It’s history, junked, deleted the app months ago.”

A couple of hours later, back home, I decided on a whim (a four-letter word) to investigate. I’ve always enjoyed solving crosswords, though I’m not smart enough for the cryptic ones. Who knows, maybe I’ll take to this too?

But not before I had unscrambled the word salad I was served.

So, I started reading up — the modern-day definition of Googling. If you type in Wordle on Google, it goes batty. A game interface-like pop-up keeps popping up all over the place — and, oddly enough, if you study the moving montage closely, the pieces begin to fall into place (there’s also a six-letter ‘tougher’ challenge, I found out, but that’s for those who are masochistic).

It’s a plain vanilla grid: 5 (across) by 6 (below). You type in a five-letter word. If any of the letters are in common with the final word, they will show up either in green or in beige. If it’s in green, you know the position is correct: for instance, if you’ve typed P-O-I-S-E, and S shows up green, you know that the final word has S as its fourth letter too. If a letter shows up beige, well then it figures in the final word too, but in a different position. Anything in between will be a dank shade of grey… cross them out in your mind.

If you cannot come up with the word at the end of six shots, you lose, no second chances, no going back to ‘play again’. And you can share your graph on social media and WhatsApp (and other messaging apps); you don’t give anything away, because they only get to see your trajectory, not the words you formed along the way.

Now, there are obvious hacks — as many will point out. An easy one is open Safari and Chrome at the same time, and play on both. Your chances immediately double. You can also look up anagrams sites online if you have your five letters, but still trying to figure out the ‘secret’ word.

But the point is: Wordle is actually an ego boost to yourself. You don’t want to take shortcuts because that’s bad for self-worth.

In an interview to The Harvard Gazette, in 
response to the question “Why are some people better than others at this kind of game?”, 
cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who, reportedly, enjoyed playing the game, said: “I’d guess it’s a combination of several traits: 
(1) general intelligence, which embraces an ability to manipulate abstract symbols according to rules; (2) verbal intelligence, which includes commanding a large vocabulary; (3) ‘phonological awareness’ the knowledge that words are composed of sounds (a critical component of reading, and the main skill missing in dyslexia); 
(4) literacy in English, including familiarity with large numbers of words and spelling patterns; (5) ‘need for cognition’, the personality trait consisting of pleasure taken in solving intellectual problems for their own sake.”

‘Words are all I have to take your heart away’

The word Wordle is not word play. It’s serendipity. The ‘inventor’ is a man called Josh Wardle, who had a Eureka moment and simply replaced a vowel in his surname to create a brand.

But more interestingly, there’s a romance to Wordle. When the Bee Gees sang (and many more who rushed to cover it) “It’s only words,/ And words are all I have/ To take your heart away”, who’d have guessed that, in 2021, there would be a man in Brooklyn doing just that? The New York Times carried a piece (forwarded to me by the same friend who I met for breakfast) titled ‘Wordle Is a Love Story’. Here’s how author Daniel Victor words the genesis:

“Josh Wardle, a software engineer in Brooklyn, knew his partner loved word games, so he created a guessing game for just the two of them. As a play on his last name, he named it Wordle.

But after the couple played for months, and after it rapidly became an obsession in his family’s WhatsApp group once he introduced it to relatives, Mr Wardle thought he might be on to something and released it to the rest of the world in October.

On Nov 1, 90 people played. On Sunday, just over two months later, more than 300,000 people played. It’s been a meteoric rise for the once-a-day game, which invites players to guess a five-letter word in a similar manner as the guess-the-color game Mastermind...”

Josh’s partner Palak Shah has talked about the game being “definitely” reflective of how Josh showed his love: “It’s really sweet.”

It’s a love story for sure. About the power of words.

Good things happen to those who wait

We learn something new every day. I, for instance, was unaware of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). It’s a US-based newspaper, seemingly a Christian denomination-centric one, whose mission statement is to “help Catholics who want to be informed, educated and grow in their faith. NCR connects Catholics to church, faith, and the common good with independent news”. Their website carried an opinion piece, ‘Wordle Reminds Us That Pleasure Has Its Place, Waiting Has Its Benefits’, by Nicole Symmonds, that was more catholic (verb) than Catholic (non), and straightaway struck a chord. “Whether it is the constant programming offered by streaming services, the fast shipping, fast food, fast fashion or our most recent call to rapidity, rapid and at-home Covid tests, we are accustomed to acquiring things, goods, results and satisfaction quickly and repeatedly. This trains us, or me at least, to be intemperate in my consumption of goods.”

But while playing Wordle, the penny dropped for Nicole: “I realized that what I loved most about the game — aside from the actual work of guessing the word — was the fact that I could only play it once a day and had to wait. That is when it hit me that Wordle was doing something for me, for us, that is rarely promoted in our world — patience, and temperance.

Is Wordle bringing these virtues back?”

Wordle — so far — remains a treat. A daily treat. Treats, by definition, are one-offs. You have to wait for the new grid to come your way after a day. It made me think of the times when we had to wait for an entire week to pass before we got to watch the next episode of a gripping television serial. That was also the time when I’d discovered James Hadley Chase, and read and re-read The Vulture Is A Patient Bird.

Wordle is addictive alright but it doesn’t give you the hangover that irresponsible accessibility to excesses accords.

Words from the wise

Influencers are not the only new-age careerists. You can be a “scholar of games” as well. Which is what C Thi Nguyen is — other than being a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. While celebs like Jimmy Fallon and Jennifer Beals declared on social media that they are officially addicted to Wordle, Nguyen wrote out a mini edit on his Twitter handle where he philosophised why the game went viral. Each chapter of Wordle, according to him, is an “arc of decisions, attempts and failures”. “The cleverest bit about Wordle is its social media presence… The best thing about Wordle is the graphic design of the shareable Wordle chart. There’s a huge amount of information — and drama — packed into that little graph… I don’t know any other game that has nearly as graphically neat a synopsis, where you can just see the whole arc of another’s attempt so quickly.”

In a report — ‘Why the Online Game Wordle Went Viral, According to Psychology’ — delving into the mental math of Wordle and how it’s ushering in a sense of community, Smithsonian 
Magazine quotes psychologist Lee Chambers (telling Insider’s Sian Bradley), as saying “it [Wordle] leads to the release of dopamine, a chemical that causes people to seek out a positive experience again”. “The fact that we are all trying to solve the same puzzle brings us together,” Chambers told Insider. “There’s both a sense of community in terms of ‘How difficult did people find it this time?’ and a competitive angle in terms of ‘How well did I stack up in finding this word compared to everyone else?’”

Josh Wardle, the man of words and letters, remains somewhat aloof from media attention, and yet emotionally invested in his followers. On Twitter (@powerlanguish), he has a modest following — 22K (at the time of going to press) — but it’s probably a matter of quality over quantity: he engages with them, and has conversations around Wordle and, by extension, life. There’s a very real connect on his thread in the otherwise auto-prompt, somewhat manufactured world of Twitter. Someone called @Jay_Bavishi, for instance, in a tagged tweet to Josh, says, “Wordle has given me a non-heavy reason to check in with friends and family every day in these heavy times, while sometimes claiming intellectual superiority over them… Except for the one day I didn’t solve it — I didn’t text anybody that day.”

“The game feels really human and just enjoyable,” Josh said in an interview to Slate. “And that really resonates with where we’re at right now in the world and with Covid.”

Being a wordsmith: a work in progress

I like how the first five-letter word you punch in can set the bar. My first word on my first attempt was ‘M-A-G-I-C’, and it was like magic: three of the letters showed to be part of the final word — M, I, and C (apparently, a really good strike rate), while A and G got knocked off the perch. I needed two more to make a word with, and I had five chances. The next word I thought of was R-A-P-I-D: I knew this was bad horse sense because R-A-P-I-D has a repeat of A, which I knew wouldn’t feature in the final word. But, magically, R and P showed up in beige, so I had my star lineup on second shot: M, I, C, R and P.

It has to be CRIMP, I thought. Or it better be.

And it was. My third shot input turned all-green.  Like Stephen Fry — who had tweeted his triumph a few days ago — I’d got my word “in three”.

How could I not get hooked?

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